Down and Out in West Texas

We were checking in when a woman came storming out of her room to the desk and said,

“There’s shit on them sheets.”

The South Indian manager sighed with unmasked irritation but, true to local custom, tried to provide accommodating customer service.

“We can give you a new room, m’am,” he said. “New sheets and everything.”

I had just finished signing the credit card slip. The Super 8 was barely a mile off I-10, and we’d just spent six hours waiting in Ciudad Juárez to enter the United States: me in the parking lot on the El Paso side of the Córdova bridge, Jorge in a small room crammed with people waiting for the final stamp that would signal the end of this round of bureaucracy, one small but crucial victory in an ongoing battle for legality. I had pictured a triumphant embrace, Jorge beaming at his arrival and me leaping into his arms, Stella grinning a beefy German Shepherd grin: I allowed myself to feel that swell of embarrassing patriotism that sometimes overtakes me against my will watching Olympic sporting events.

But Jorge was embittered after his first U.S encounter with a bored official who, after $1500, a week spent holed up in a Ciudad Juárez hotel room, and the epic, unrelentingly hot wait at the border, didn’t know what a K1 visa was, and made Jorge wait for a half an hour at the counter while she asked her supervisor what to do. When he finally came out, Stella had just devoured a sweaty papaya on the curb and wasn’t feeling so hot, I was sitting exhausted and fed up under a street lamp, and we all wanted nothing more than for the day to be over.

The highway chains had bristled with neon against the flat Texas night, then disappeared, one after the other, as we zoomed east and north, and when we had finally escaped the predictable detritus of sprawl around El Paso we took the first black, quiet exit, parked at the Super 8, took a moment to admire the sprinkling of lights like plankton spread flat and wide over the valley, and came in for a room. There, we met the woman, and soon after marooned ourselves in sleeping bags on our $48 bed, sheets beside us in a bundled heap on the floor, drinking beer and watching CNN.

“Bienvenidos a los Estados Unidos!” I said.

Then: “We’re still in the wilds of West Texas, you know. The rest of the US is really not like this.”

It was a sleepless night. The room smelled of smoke and piss; the air conditioner was an old man racked with a frigid hacking cough. The morning, though, was pristine, the sky lime and tangerine and the desert bathed in gold light. We stopped at a gas station, bought Dolly Madison pies, checked the oil. We began the long, monotonous trek along the mountains where migrants and smugglers hid and ran, ran and hid, died and made it and disappeared into a new and foreign land. We passed tiny towns where white-washed garages sold kilos of chiles, and army bases hunched in the middle of long stretches of dust from which mushroom clouds had once risen and settled. The jagged crests of mountains rose and fell, pale iguana greens and burnt yellows and siennas. The sky was an IMAX of activity, silvered clouds drifting across astronomical blue; perfectly contained rainshowers fell on isolated patches of emptiness, their droplets shot through with light. On and on and on we drove, all day, with 105 degree heat and an air conditioner that coughed with the warm breath of a dead squirrel, thus leading to the opening of windows and the dampening of hair and necks and backs and legs until we took refuge in Pilot Travel Plazas, fingering the Jessica and Mike and Andy license plates until our body temperatures dropped. When we got to Midland-Odessa we’d made good progress and figured we could hit Dallas by nightfall. We stopped at a Starbucks and I asked if we could have Sunday’s copy of The New York Times, stranded on the bottom of the store’s newspaper rack.

“That?” the barista asked. “Sure! Nobody reads that thing!”

Back in the car we were optimistic. This was it: our start in the United States. We were going to earn fellowships, establish our fame and renown, and then waltz back to Mexico to a beautiful casita with a view of the mountains where we’d practice our crafts in calm and confidence with the enraptured backing of US foundations. Or so I pictured. Jorge, perhaps, thought it would be three years of gritting his teeth while I got graduate school out of my system.

So Jorge read The New York Times aloud to practice his English, and we sipped our coffees, and the droning monotony of the heat and the landscape seemed like an affectionate hardship to endure en route to something truly worthwhile, something greater than where we’d been and what we’d done. I pictured the wood-paneled classrooms on The University of Pittsburgh’s writing program website, the curly script reading “You will write your first book here.” I pictured myself in front of an audience at a New York City bookstore saying, “Really, I just wanted to write, you know, and I never pictured this.” I corrected Jorge’s pronunciation of “extracurricular” and “arugula.”

And then there was a clank. And a roly-poly bam bam bam like a boot thrown under the hood of the car. And then we began slowing down.

“Something’s happening to the car,” I said.

Jorge looked up from the Times.

I had pushed all my weight against the gas pedal and we were dropping to fifty, forty, thirty.

“Can I get over?” I asked, panicking. “We’re slowing down! I have to get over!”

“Si, si puedes!” Jorge said, and I pulled over to the slow lane of the two-lane highway and then, as we dropped to 25, then 20, and finally to 10, onto the shoulder where we came to a slow unceremonious halt while the semis shuddered past and sent heat waves rippling over the hood.

“Oh, fuck,” I said.

We sat there a few minutes.

“No shit,” Jorge said.

“Oh, fuck. Oh, fuck.” I said.

We went on like this until finally I did what I am ashamed to admit I always do in these situations: I called my dad. My cell phone had one bar of power left.

“Dad?” I said, and he must have known from that tone of voice that I was going to say something like, “All of my stuff was robbed in the middle of the night,” like I’d said on the first morning of my solo trip across South America or “Our car was bombed out and they stole everything” like I’d said from a pay phone in Cape Town. This time I said, “The car just stopped on the side of the highway in the middle of nowhere, West Texas.”

And my dad did what he does every time: first he sighed, and then he said, “Ok, here’s what you’re gonna do.”

In this case, what I was gonna do was call AAA and ask for a towing service to the nearest mechanic. Except that the cell phone died before I could do that. Emergency Calls Only! it read in urgent yellow letters, but it stubbornly refused when I dialed the number on dad’s AAA card.

This is how we wound up trapising down a small hill off the highway’s shoulder through those hardass desert weeds, the kind undeterred by the perpetual blowback of truck exhaust and the shimmering despotic heat, up to a small house with a miniature white picket fence stuck in the parched grass of the front yard. Tiny mace-like burs clung to our calves. I knocked.

A short and stocky woman with long black hair answered.

“Yeah?” she asked.

In pleading tones, I pointed to the little tan Toyota, looking unperturbed and maddeningly cheery on the shoulder even when rattled again and again by the charging semis and the impassive Land Rovers, in which couples headed at 80 mph for success drank their Starbucks and read their Times without a care in the world. I explained how we’d stalled, and asked to charge the cell phone.

“Sure,” she said, and plugged the phone into a socket in the vigorously air conditioned living room. Her husband, sunk low into the couch, barely bothered to gaze up at us, as if windswept and desperate-looking couples were always showing up on the stoop begging for the use of an outlet. “Hi,” I said. He nodded, turned right back to the TV.

Two hours later I was shouting “M AS IN MIKE!” into the cell phone to an Indian call center responder with a still-blatant accent and a tenuous command of English, while Jorge ate a Moon Pie and stared with feigned comprehension under the car’s hood with the woman’s husband. The husband, I’d discovered in conversation over Styrofoam cups of Pepsi, had lost several toes to diabetes. He was in a black wife beater and jeans, and told us that this happened all the time, seemed like there was something on this stretch of the highway ‘cause people were always breaking down and coming to ask for help. You wouldn’t believe it. And some of ‘em were outright rude. I upped the intensity of my desperate thank yous. He shook them off with a wave of his hand. I think he took a shine to Jorge, as lonely manly men tend to do, puffing out his chest and talking fluids and gauges and valves while us women straddled the picnic table benches and sipped our Pepsis.

The wife had brought out the moon pies first, then the little Styrofoam cups with ice for the soda, and then hot dogs for Stella, who was panting indiscreetly and trying, under the strain of the heat and the exhaustion from her journey in plane cabins and backseats across borders, to pay attention to where in the hell we were and what was going on and whether there was any threat in the immediate vicinity. Her ears would perk, then tilt gently to the sides as she caved to the fact that it was 105 degrees, in West Texas, and we were sitting outside under an aluminum awning waiting for the husband’s cousin, a mechanic at the truck stop, to come take a look.

In the meantime, I was trying to arrange for towing, but the Indian responder struggled.

“You are in Midway!” he said. “Midway, of Texas.”

“MIDLAND!” I shouted, “M-I-D-L-A-N-D Dee as in DOG! We are forty miles east of Midland!”

“Ok ma’am,” the responder said, “You are at exit forty, East, Midland. Texas.”

The woman refilled my cup; the Pepsi seemed to sizzle over the ice. Her husband said it looked like the car was out of oil.

“Bad sign!” he offered, pulling himself up off the gravel.

“M. I. D. L. A. N. D. Forty miles east. Forty miles east. Of Midland.”

“I will try to find it, miss,” he said, then put me on hold for what I imagine must have been a frantic, stressful grapple for comprehension on his end. I set the phone on the picnic table.

“Ya estan las four!” the woman said, in the first pocho Spanish I’d ever heard. She slipped between the two idiomas amphibiously with a flat, disconcerting Texas drawl. “Vamos a Wal-Mart a comprar some oil,” she’d say, her vowels stretched and exaggerated, the rolled “r” of comprar steamrolled between Wal-Mart and oil. The man avoided Spanish with me altogether but struck it up naturally with Jorge, with the pleasure of someone settling back into the saddle for the first time after a long stretch of idleness.

“Todo el pueblo se encuentra en Wal-Mart!” he said to Jorge from beneath the car, where he was rattling various parts in one of a series of tests which, knowing nothing about cars and feeling increasing desperation, we authorized in quick nods.

The woman explained that everyone in Big Spring, the Howard county seat three miles down the highway, met up at the Wal-Mart: to gossip, to catch up, to escape the heat.

“That’s where ya find out if somebody’s pregnant,” she said. And, “That’s where I got these!” She held up a Moon Pie. “12 for two dollars!” She told us about how the windows of her house had been blown out by an explosion at the oil refinery, which killed a couple of people and rocked the town for weeks. “Lotsa people come here for the oil,” she said. She was in bed when wham, she heard shattered glass and shaking like an earthquake, and she looked out the window to see the refinery smoking.

It was my dad, ultimately, who found Mike’s Towing in Big Spring, and called on the other line while the Indian kept me on hold, perhaps Googling Texas and hating himself for having accepted his job. I hung up on the Indian and wrote the number dad gave me on the top edge of a map of the highways of the United States. The husband’s cousin arrived, limping after losing a foot to diabetes, and proclaimed that the car was out of both gas and oil, despite us filling up on both that morning.

“Bad sign!” he said.

The husband, his cousin, and Jorge drove to Wal-Mart to buy more gas and oil. I waved forlornly to Jorge where he sat in the husband’s truck; watched them pull away on the service road into a a gray-white afternoon stiffened and slowed by heat.

Stella and the woman and I chatted about the woman’s daughter, who’d married a gringo and never brought her kids around, thought she was better than all that. Those kids didn’t even speak Spanish, just the inglés their daddy spoke and they learned at school. They were real smart kids, though. The woman studiously avoided the topic of Mexico, as if it were an obscure part of Jorge and I’s past that would be better left unmentioned. She drifted in and out of Spanish and English but somehow it was clear that I should speak only the latter. She said she’d built this addition to her house herself – bought the aluminum siding, bought the beams, and helped her husband rig it up. They’d bought that little trailer out back, in the yard: we could stay there if we wanted, if we didn’t want to pay for a hotel in Big Spring.

When the men came back they fed the car oil and gas, and tried to rev it up: a horse whinnying and galloping in place, over and over, going nowhere.

“Gonna need a tow truck,” the husband’s cousin said, and we finally called Mike’s. They came out and dragged the Toyota onto their truck while we felt the initial sagging of defeat.

We rode with the woman and the man past the oil refinery into Big Spring, where they left us at the Advantage Inn and hugged us goodbye, wished us good luck, dismissed our slavish thanks for the feeding and care they’d provided. The Inn was essentially two stories of rooms in an L-shape hugging a parking lot; in this lot sat a tiny above-ground pool. The large woman who ran it apologized profusely – “I’m sorry, darlin’, I really am” for having nothing but a suite, which in Big Spring would cost us $55 instead of the $35 for a regular room. “Screw it, we’re living large!” I said, trying to drudge up some of the post-adventure relief we’d felt in the past when, for example, we’d gotten utterly lost in China and hiked for eight hours up 3,000 feet of elevation change when we were supposed to hike three on a steady grade (my fault, I admit), but this was different, heavier. We piled on our packs and hauled them upstairs to the room which, compared to the Super 8, was palatial. We wouldn’t even need our sleeping bags.

15 minutes later, we realized we’d left Jorge’s backpack, with a good $5000 worth of camera equipment, sitting in the half-dead grass beside the man and woman’s house. It was the one valuable item we had. Somehow we’d carefully wedged my dad’s external frame backpacks from the 1970’s filled with paperbacks and crappy skillets and dog food in the backseat but forgotten that pack. Jorge paced. “God damn this trip! God damn the United States!” he said, and I scrambled trying to find the yellow bit of scrap paper on which I’d written the husband’s cell number. I called.

“Sure!” he said, that eminently American word, which seems to wrap around the tongue like a silly straw. “I’ll be right there.” The thanks reached fever pitch that time, but after he’d pulled off Jorge sunk into a sullen silence that I knew could be cured only with time and beer.

The Advantage Inn was full of men drinking Bud on balconies: oil workers and, I later came to believe, meth dealers. Thank God for the Stella, whose presence distracted the men from the young blond girl, her husband, and their motley assortment of bags and backpacks. The men were lined up against the walls of their rooms, playing tinny rock from radios and staring out over the parking lot, the highway, and in the distance, Big Spring. When we passed on a beer quest they said, “Whoa, doggie!” and I smiled in that indulgent but firm way, which I hoped suggested that if they tried anything the Stella would rip them uncompromisingly to shreds.

A couple, he shirtless and she in cutoff denim shorts, got out of a truck in the parking lot with a tiny dog that Stella wanted to devour whole. The couple installed themselves in a ground floor room and, like everyone else, opened the door to smoke and drink from the doorstep, their little dog turning circles at their feet. We took the far steps, which gave out onto a stretch of sorry grass, dumpsters, and the neighboring lot of the gas station. There, we were saved from Bud Clamato by one lonely row of Blue Moons.

The critical beer situation dealt with, we hunted for dinner. We kept walking, across a state road bisecting the highway, to the Pilot Station, where teenage girls let their naked babies walk right on up to the Stella and bang their fists on her head. Stella responded by bathing them in enthusiastic wet kisses while their mothers alternately smoked or laughed. We went to Popeye’s, which I swore to Jorge was really awesome, la creme de la creme of American fast food, and bought a bucket of chicken and sides of mashed potatoes and red beans and rice, and that night Jorge finally understood the agony of all of my gringo friends and family who had visited us in Mexico and spent tortured, lonely hours in our bathroom, weakly shouting through the open window, “I’m fine, really, I am.” He was rocked all through the next day; couldn’t even eat the Styrofoam bowl of Fruit Loops and the plastic-wrapped Danish that constituted our suite’s continental breakfast. We walked gingerly around town: past the DQ, past the Burger King, past several Mexican restaurants advertising barbacoa and pansa de chivo. I called the mechanic to whom Mike had towed our car, heart in throat.

“Oh you, the outta-towners?” he said. “Toyota, right?”

“Right,” I said.

“Oh yeah, no biggie!” he said. “You’ve just got a dead battery. Recharging it now.”

“Really?” I asked, breathless. “So we’ll be set by the afternoon?”

“Yep!” he said. “Toyota minivan, right?”

“No,” I said, “No, the Toyota Corolla.”

“OH,” he said. “Oh, you’re screwed.”

The engine was fried. It would be $2000 for a new engine, and even then who knew if it’d run all the way from Texas to Ohio. Probably the heat that killed it, he said. Can’t drive a used car across the country in this heat! The mechanic’s name was George and he was vaguely admonishing: what were us youngsters doing free-wheeling it through West Texas in that poor unsuspecting Toyota? The car altogether had cost $2000, and when I made the Dad phone call he sighed, and advised against it. Rent one, he said, and give up the ghost.

The 1994 Toyota Corolla was our first shared item in the United States, a wedding present, and we left it in Big Spring, Texas as we piled into Charlie’s Taxi with all of our earthly belongings and the Stella. Charlie was wearing a ball cap from which a straggly white ponytail emerged and wriggled down his back.

He started up his van. The Advantage Inn’s owner said, “Good luck, y’all,” and her skinny little girl, who spent all afternoon splashing around the pool with a rotating assortment of kids, embraced the Stella and said, “Goodbye Stella. You’re a good doggie.” Stella panted her thanks, keeping a wary eye out for the little dog in case there was still time to take it down.

Pulling back onto I-20 to retrace our steps, past all those happy miles when Jorge was practicing his “y” sounds and we were caffeinated and hopeful, Charlie asked where we’d come from. We said Mexico.

“New Mexico or Old Mexico?”

“Old Mexico,” Jorge said.

“Used to go down there before they stopped ya from taking your gun,” Charlie said. “Cheap dental care!” Outside his taxi van the arid, ochre West Texas land sprawled on and on and on unbroken by scenery. Charlie told us the story of the cattle guards.

“You know what a cattle guard is?” he asked. We shook our heads. On the dashboard bobbed eleven miniature stuffed cats. “That’s my wife’s side,” he’d explained. On his side was a plastic frog drinking a beer.

“A cattle guard is a post or a fence set up to keep the cattle from getting out. And you know, this president of ours -” he slapped the steering wheel for emphasis, laughed and shook his head – “this president of ours sent a letter out to all sortsa farmers and ranchers around here telling ‘em to fire their cattle guards! ‘Cause the White House was trying to, you know, cut costs!” He waited for our response. I sat resigned in the backseat. Jorge gazed out at dusty green-yellow crops.

“This president is that stupid he doesn’t even know that. Can you believe it? Everybody just laughing and laughin’ – fire the cattle guards.” He scoffed.

“This country,” he said. “Never thought it’d be run by a socialist.” The cats bobbed on the dashboard. The frog hoisted its mug with a grin. Thirty miles to go. He told us how he was planning on retiring in Florida, but his wife had set up this taxi service and he had a good thing going, all those oil businessmen needed rides to the airport. He told us about the drug dealers in Big Spring, how recently there had been a raid in a house, and a few months ago a pregnant woman and her lover had been assassinated – it was a big deal. Now the town had its own narc squad.

“Whole town is overrun with ‘em,” he said. “A plague. Didn’t used to be like this. Got lotsa outta towners coming in here and messing things up.” He didn’t quite need to say “immigrants.” His wife, however, was “half-Mexican and tough as nails.” Turns out that Big Spring had changed quite a bit in the last several decades, with the West Texas oil boom. After a self-pitying Facebook update about our situation, I found out that my aunt Katie and uncle Pete had lived in Big Spring in the 1970’s, when Pete was stationed there with the Air Force. Then, they used to drive eighty miles to go to McDonald’s. I let Katie know that she would now have the choice between Popeye’s, Subway, the various delectables of the Pilot station, DQ, and Burger King. She would also, however, have to contend with what Charlie labeled as “meth, cocaine, you name it”.

Charlie dropped us at the Midland terminal, helped us unload our bags, patted the Stella on the head, and took our $70 with a “hey, thanks.” And then he was gone, curving back around towards Big Spring.

The airport was an anesthesized and largely empty dull-brown space, occasionally criss-crossed by khakied business professionals. Now, whenever I see “Midland-Odessa” on an airport map, I get a little shiver of abhorred remembrance – nostalgia’s dark twin – recalling the two of us freshly stranded on the concrete entryway amidst the debris of our years in Mexico, facing the prospect of spending our meager savings on a rental car, anticipating the remaining 1300-mile drive to this increasingly dubious American chapter of our lives.

We rented a silver Hyundai from Hertz, an ugly boat that made me feel small and insignificant driving, a midget snug amidst so much glass and metal. It was smooth and efficiently air-conditioned and utterly soulless, and we felt great irrational affection for the Toyota that had pooped out in its first week with us when we made a final, painful stop in Big Spring to sign the official papers at the mechanic’s and clear out our things. I gathered the CDs I’d burnt one after the other at my parent’s place in Ohio – Lila Downs, Calexico, Beirut – out of the glove compartment, tossed the Times and the coffee cups, collected scraps out of the backseat and the trunk, and said goodbye to still mildly admonishing but now sympathetic George before we backed out of his lot in the arrogant Hyundai. We stopped at DQ and got Blizzards, and maybe it was the sticky Reese’s cups in the runny supersweet soft serve that finally sunk us into despair. Jorge couldn’t finish his; the dolor of Popeyes was revisiting him.

It took hundreds of miles to speak of the $800 we were spending to drive this puppy to Columbus, of the dead Toyota, of the exploding oil refinery and Charlie and Popeye’s and this, the United States of America. We didn’t, really, until we got to Nashville, and went to a Mexican restaurant next to the spartan Days Inn, and ate warmed flour tortillas covered in mushy beans and cheese, and then we began to laugh, but not so loudly or warmly that we felt renewed confidence in the decision to leave Mexico.

And yet now, with Jorge temporarily back in Mexico on a competitive arts fellowship and me writing fiction for the first time, a year of non-stop reading and writing and some solid publications under my belt, that initial breakdown seems less a harbinger of doom than a warning about the mirages that distance can birth, mirages shattered and exploded one after the other in my first year here.

I spent that first year agonizing about why I’d decided to come back, already building Mexico into a promised land where the light was perpetually burnished and the beers were cheap and inspiration was common as the Coca-Colas painted on the sides of each and every Miscelanea. Gone was the machismo, gone was the traffic and the perpetual threat of being flattened by a careening VW Bug whose enthusiastic driver thought pedestrians were of a lesser order.

And yet now Jorge calls from Oaxaca and says, “I miss Pittsburgh,” and I take walks in Frick Park with its giant Sycamore leaves, I go to my workshops and I take out dozens of books from the super-stocked library and we’re both doing alright in ways we half-anticipated and half couldn’t imagine what feels like ages ago in Mexico. I suppose when I go back this December, we’ll see. But this time, I’ll fly, and perhaps in some way that is cheating. Perhaps, really, I need to put my faith in a $2000 Toyota: drive it through the unbroken heat of the desert, through Oklahoma and Texas and Ciudad Juárez, and see where it breaks down, on whose picnic table I make my desperate phone calls, which illusions are broken and which persist, and where, in the end, I wind up.


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